Yankees celebrate special teammate as Sabathia sendoff starts

TAMPA — CC Sabathia strolled the narrow corridor that curves under Steinbrenner Field, moving as ringleader toward tomorrow.

Stretching wall to wall surrounding Sabathia on this journey were members of his family, the Steinbrenner family and his Yankee family. That blend felt right, for at the end of that corridor was a press conference at which Sabathia would officially announce 2019 is his final season.

Seats at these events can so often get filled by sense of duty and peer pressure. Sabathia packed a pavilion because over the last decade he bonded with so many, made life with the Yankees easier and more enjoyable for those who came into his orbit. He protected teammates on the field, made them feel welcome in the clubhouse, opened his wisdom, home and good times to fellow Yankees.

On the November day he was acquired by the Yankees, in the few seconds after his phone conference with reporters concluded, James Paxton received a text from a number he did not know. It was Sabathia welcoming him to the team, letting the fellow lefty know whatever he needed — whether it was where to live or what had to be known about the Yankee ecosystem — to just ask. The two had never spoken before.

“That was pretty cool,” Paxton said. “How do I even put into words what that meant? He made me feel like part of the team from Day 1.”

Luis Severino had a press conference in the same pavilion three hours earlier to discuss his new four-year, $40 million contract and, as a way to show support, Sabathia recommended fellow starters Paxton, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery and Masahiro Tanaka attend. Asked what that meant to him, Severino said, “Any time I need something, I go to CC. He is like family.”

Nothing that would be said at Sabathia’s own press conference could more embody the group sentiment.

“All I ever want to be remembered as is as a good teammate,” Sabathia said Saturday afternoon.

Done. Mission accomplished.

Sabathia might have had to be compelled to come to the Yankees, but he then never wanted to leave.

Brian Cashman prioritized Sabathia following the 2008 campaign — the Yanks’ first out of the playoffs since 1993 — because he was arguably the best pitcher in the sport. But Sabathia’s reputation already was established. He had always appreciated, when he broke in at 20 with the 2001 Indians, a veteran team that embraced rather than hazed or marginalized him. Dave Burba and Ellis Burks in particular helped him navigate the unique major league habitat, and Sabathia vowed to pay that forward.

Sabathia is naturally chatty, fraternal, happy to share his largesse with others. His comfort and kindness are universal — pitcher or hitter, white or black, American or foreigner, rookie or veteran. He sees teammates as one brand. And Cashman wanted that. Those Yankees were in transition to a new Yankee Stadium and from the back end of the Core Four to something else. The general manager believed the clubhouse had grown joyless, that a divide had set in between veterans and youngsters and the Derek Jeter-Alex Rodriguez tension suffocated the room.

He landed Sabathia with a pitching-record seven-year, $161 million pact and told the lefty he wanted more than the arm, he needed the ebullient uniter. Sabathia honored that as ace to a champion and guide to a more convivial clubhouse.

In an era when what occurs on a field has never been more quantifiable, it is hard to know what such leadership means for wins and losses. But as pitching coach Larry Rothschild said, “When you feel good, is your life better? CC makes the clubhouse a better place and you are more likely to have a better outcome when you begin from a better place.”

Adam Ottavino, another newcomer and one of the game’s most devoted players to new data and technology, said: “Even being here a short time, it is just obvious that everyone stops to talk to CC. We are talking about a potential Hall of Famer who makes everyone move through the clubhouse in a better frame of mind. You could run into old school and that might keep especially young players in their shell and it is harder to perform that way.”

Question: If Bryce Harper or Manny Machado checked the leadership/teammate boxes Sabathia did, would offers for the duo have been different — with signings in December rather than continued unemployment?

Let’s table that for another day. The same with Sabathia’s Hall of Fame debate. For now, let’s celebrate the beginning of the end for a player whose powers extended beyond the mound to the ability to unify different backgrounds and ages into family.

“Everyone who has ever played with CC Sabathia,” Austin Romine said, “benefited from having him in the clubhouse.”

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